The Stress-Busting Magic of Adaptogens

Rhodiola rosea plant, a powerful adaptogen for stress relief

Popular headliners in tonics, teas, and powders of all kinds, adaptogens may seem like an ultramodern invention for the new new age. But the reality is that they’re anything but new.

“Adaptogens have been around for thousands of years in Ayurvedic medicine and traditional Chinese medicine,” says Jaclyn Tolentino, D.O., a board-certified family physician with Parsley Health, a primary care medical practice in Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco. 

What is an adaptogen?

An adaptogen is a “nontoxic plant substance that helps the body resist many types of stressors,” adds Tolentino. The sources of stress might be everything from a crazy deadline at work, relationship issues, on-going anxiety (psychological stress) to pollution (environmental stress) or sleep problems or illnesses (physical stress), among others.

How do adaptogens work?

Basically, a plant with adaptogenic properties brings your body and mind back from the brink of a breakdown. When you take adaptogens for stress, they act to dampen the adrenal response, lowering cortisol and thus sending your body back into homeostasis, or balance, where it prefers to be. 

But it doesn’t just stop at cortisol, says Dr. Tolentino. “Hormones work together as a symphony,” she says. Meaning, when you dampen the cortisol response, the effects work to dampen the body’s stress response over time.

Taking adaptogenic herbs isn’t like popping an ibuprofen to respond to a splitting headache. Their effects build up to protect your body from stress. Give them at least several days before expecting to notice a difference, but you’ll get the most benefit from them after taking them long-term. 

Adaptogens for (almost) every situation 

There are many adaptogens and blends out there — some even contain CBD for an added boost of simmer-down relief — and while they help build stress resilience as a whole, they can also be used in more targeted ways. 

For all-purpose stress relief

Try: Ashwagandha, which is an anti-inflammatory herb that promotes relaxation. Think of this as a do-everything adaptogen that’s perfect for newbies who want to know where to start. If you come home from work zapped and frazzled, ashwagandha can be taken at night to help slow the dump of cortisol into your system, says Tolentino. Find it in: Sun Potion Ashwagandha

For an uplifting effect

Try: Cordyceps (a fungi), rhodiola rosea (an herb), and Asian ginseng are great when you’re dealing with stress-related fatigue, says Tolentino. Think of it as hitting the refresh button. Find it in: Hum Nutrition Big Chill

To simmer down at night

Try: Tulsi Tea, which is widely available as bags that you steep in hot water and sip like, well, any other regular tea. The herb is naturally caffeine-free and is rich in antioxidants. “It’s meant for people who are anxious and super stressed who find drinking tea to be calming,” says Tolentino. Find it in: Organic India Tulsi Sleep

To shore up your immune system

Try: Reishi mushroom not only dampens the inflammation response but it also revs up the production of natural killer (NK) cells. “NK cells are our body’s main defense when it comes to the immune system,” says Tolentino. If you find that an overload of stress is causing you to constantly get sick with something, these mushrooms can help your body put up its defenses. Find it in: Four Sigmatic Reishi Elixir 

To support a lagging libido

Try: Maca root, a Peruvian plant, is a known energizer — it’s why some people drink it as a coffee alternative. While research isn’t conclusive, there’s some evidence that it may help drive sexual desire, particularly if you’re taking antidepressants, which are known for tanking your libido. Find it in: Moodbeli Ceremony Tonic

Get started — safely 

You can take adaptogens in whole food form (like mushrooms), as well as a supplement in pill or powder form. Catch is, not all adaptogens are created equal. “The quality, purity, potency, and how these plants are grown are all important,” says Tolentino. Visit the web site of the company and read about how they source their ingredients. For instance, if the adaptogen is a mushroom, it should come from cold-water processing and the mycelium and spores should be used for best efficacy, she says. The transparency of the brand is one clue if their products are high-quality.

Of course, always talk to your doctor before taking any supplement. It’s easy to forget that these have real medicinal properties, especially if they’re things you’re scooping into your smoothie or bulletproof coffee in the morning, but they do. (One caution: If you’re pregnant, you should avoid adaptogens, but your obgyn may give you the okay to take them postpartum if you’re breastfeeding, says Tolentino.) 

Beyond products available OTC, you can also hook up with a functional medicine doctor who may recommend more therapeutic doses if needed. Ultimately, “all this attention on adaptogens is well-deserved. Despite their long history, we’re just starting to see how powerful they can be when used the right way,” says Tolentino.